Fresh Blood

Name: Robin Wasserman

Title of Book: Girls on Fire

'...I can tell you now this is the best book I’ll read this year.'

Hannah Dexter is a nobody, ridiculed at school by golden girl Nikki Drummond and bored at home. But then Nikki’s boyfriend kills himself and, in the aftermath, Hannah befriends new girl, Lacey. Soon the pair are inseparable, bonded by their shared hatred of Nikki.

Lacey transforms good girl Hannah into Dex, a Kurt Cobain fan up for any challenge Lacey throws at her. Together, the two girls believe they are invulnerable and nobody, not even Nikki, can harm them. But Lacey has a secret, about life before Dex, that will change everything forever…

I know we’re not even midway through 2016, but I can tell you now this is the best book I’ll read this year. I loved every word of this book and never wanted it to end.

Set in a nondescript town called Battle Creek, ‘Girls on Fire’ is a story of the friendship between two girls, Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain. It is also a story about sex and sexuality and the different ways young women deal with the startling and - at times –frightening changes to their teenage bodies.

The writing is brilliant – clever, funny prose that dances off every page as the reader is drawn deeper into the dark, obsessive world of Hannah (Dex) and Lacey.

The novel opens with a brief prologue which reads like an ode to those transitory, perfect moments of careless youth that we only ever appreciate long after they’re gone. The writing is so lyrical, so rich, so pitch-perfect it is more like poetry than prose. Like youth itself, this opening section sizzles with light and life and energy; and ends far too quickly.

The story is told from the interchanging viewpoints of Dex and Lacey. Both are complicated, clever, compelling and utterly convincing characters. They are drawn to each other like moths to a flame, both seeing in the other a chance to escape the life they are living and become someone else.

Set in 1991, the story begins with a death. The body of high school jock, Craig Ellison, has been found in the woods near town. All evidence points to Craig’s death being a suicide, although no one can think of any reason why he would want to end his life.

Convinced that tragedy must ‘change a person’, Hannah becomes increasingly obsessed with Craig’s girlfriend, golden girl Nikki Drummond. But Nikki shows no signs that Craig’s death has touched her in any way and Hannah’s focus gradually shifts from Nikki to new girl in school, Lacey Champain.

Under Lacey’s influence, Hannah is transformed from boring good girl into risk-taking, Nirvana-loving Dex. Friendship between the two girls is fast and fierce, built on a shared love of being outsiders and an obsessive hatred of Nikki Drummond.

But there is a fine line between love and hate and neither girl’s feelings for Nikki are as straight-forward as they first seem. As secrets unfold, Dex and Lacey’s feelings for each other are stretched to the limit. It’s only a matter of time before something breaks. And when that happens, the girls’ lives – and the lives of those around them – is changed forever.

‘Girls on Fire’ is a stunning book. If you like Megan Abbott and Gillian Flynn, you will love Robin Wasserman.

Reviewed by: S.B.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) There are two narrative voices in this book: Dex and Lacey. One thing you do brilliantly is to make their voices utterly distinctive. Which character came to you first – Dex or Lacey?
Actually, I think you could say the characters are twins, born at the same time - neither of them ever existed in my imagination without the other, an interdependency that, I hope, comes through in the narrative. The very first spark of this book was the idea of a friendship, obsessive and unbalanced, two girls—one seemingly wild, one seemingly tame, both more like the other than they might imagine or admit, both needing to believe in the other so they can believe in themselves. It’s the kind of friendship I had over and over again as a teenager, and I wrote the book partly as a way of figuring out, for myself, why I kept gravitating to that dynamic, why I kept playing Dex to a series of Lacey’s - and, even more inexplicable, why these girls attached themselves to me. At the core of Dex and Lacey’s friendship is the belief that their existence is shaped and defined by the other - that there is no Dex without Lacey and there is no Lacey without Dex. For me, writing this book, that was actually true.
2) You’ve had a successful career as a YA author. Many of the themes in ‘Girls on Fire’ would certainly appeal to young adults as well as older readers. Did you always mean to write a book that both could enjoy?
I’ve never been very good at thinking about audience as I write - maybe because, even after all these years, it’s still not quite real to me that strangers will be willing to give up hours of their time to read my work. So as I was writing this book, especially during the early draft phase, I was thinking less about what age groups might enjoy it and more about where the story would take me. And where it took me, ultimately, was a book not just about teenage girls but about the idea of girlhood itself. It turns out that one thing all those years of writing young adult has given me is a lot of very strong opinions about the experience of adolescence and the place it holds in our society, the way teenagers, especially teenage girls, are weighed down by so many concerns and expectations, the way they’re simultaneously fixated on and marginalized. With this book, for the first time, I really gave myself permission to step back and think about some of those big picture questions, and I think it opened up the narrative to go in some very different directions than those I’d explored in my YA fiction.
3) In your author bio, you say the inspiration for Dex and Lacey came from your own experiences of childhood and adolescence. Can you expand on this?
As I mentioned above, I was very much a Dex when I was a teenager, and very much thought of myself as a born sidekick, a satellite to someone else’s sun. My first official best friend set the pattern. I was shy, she was outspoken; I was a timid rule-follower, she was always getting in trouble; I was a follower, she was more than happy to lead. I had - and, admittedly, continue to have - an inclination toward hero-worship, and over the course of my adolescence I fell in platonic love with one wild girl after another, projecting all these extraordinary qualities onto them which, coincidentally, where the qualities I secretly longed to have for myself. They were strong, they were brilliant, they were fearless, and befriending them, reflecting their light, made me feel like I must be someone special, too - it made me feel like I could be fearless, as long as they were by my side.
4) You say you wanted to explore why adults can be so scared of teenagers, and how the ‘fear of’ gets masked as ‘fear for’. Where does this fear come from, do you think?
Having been a teenager myself, I have a pretty good sense of how terrifying teenagers can be - and now that I’m of an age where a lot of my friends have kids, I have a whole new respect for what a strange and alienating experience it must be to watch your children turn into strangers. Especially when they’re hostile, surly, duplicitous, sexually active strangers! The unknown is always a little terrifying - and when the unknown is something we used to know entirely, when something that was an extension of ourselves transforms into something alien, what could be more terrifying than that?
5) There is one other character at the heart of this novel: Nikki Drummond. It must have been great fun to write such a completely amoral character. Did the inspiration for Nikki also come from your own experiences of adolescence, or not?
It’s true, I have a huge soft spot for Nikki, not least because it’s delightful to tackle a character like that and try to figure out how she sees herself as the hero of her own story. I’ve grown attached to her (and have already pled her case to a handful of readers who take her as a sociopath!). I guess you could say Nikki is informed by the spectre of the Popular Girl of my childhood, rather than by any particular popular girl - all I ever knew of those girls, a the time, was their surface, the ease with which they seemed to move through the world and always know exactly what to do, what to say, what to wear. As is probably the case with a lot of us who were significantly more maladjusted in adolescence, I’ve always been fascinated by the question of what it might feel like to play that role, to have to put on that act of effortless perfection, and how much effort it might take. ‘Girls on Fire’ is, in a lot of ways, a book about shaping one’s identity - about whether the self is something you find or create. Nikki became an avatar of self-invention, the shameless proponent of wearing a mask, putting on a show. There’s something appealingly honest about a character like that, willing to acknowledge the inevitability of artifice when everyone around her is clinging to an idealistic and impossible dream of ‘getting real’.
6) The final section of the book is so moving. I don’t want to give away the ending but did you know, from the outset, how Dex and Lacey’s journey would end?
Thank you! The ending came very early in the process - not in the very first draft, which had such a different plot it was practically a different book, but in the second. That’s when I wrote the first version of the climactic scene and the epilogue that ended up in the final book. Realizing where these girls’ story would end was key to unlocking the rest of it - it wasn’t until I understood what they were hurtling toward that I could start working my way backward to piece together the decisions that would get them there. The ending became somewhat of a beacon for me - a lighthouse guiding me through the dense and terrifying fog of writing the rest of the book.
7) Can we look forward to more adult fiction from Robin Wasserman? Is there anything you’re working on at the moment that you can tell us about?
I certainly hope you can - and will - look forward to more adult fiction from me! But I’m pretty superstitious about talking about works-in-progress, so I’m going to have to leave you in suspense…
8) The book comes with a great endorsement from Megan Abbott. I am a huge Megan Abbott fan and one of the (many) reasons I loved your book is that it explores some of the same themes as she does, particularly female sexuality and the intense – sometimes twisted – nature of female friendship. Is she an influence and also what other writers would you say have influenced your writing?
I love Megan Abbott, too, and have been bragging for months about getting my hands on an early copy of her new novel, ‘You Will Know Me’, which is fantastic. As I was working on ‘Girls on Fire’, I spent a couple months working on a review essay of Abbott’s ‘The Fever’, which turned out to be a great opportunity for me to start working through, explicitly, some of the thematic arguments I was making implicitly in my own work. Other writers that have really inspired me to dig deeper into these questions include Leslie Jamison, Kate Zambreno, Kelly Braffet, Heidi Julavits, and, of course, the master of creating a suspenseful, dreamy, hermetically sealed world of frenzied adolescent desire, Donna Tartt.